On Walking: Tuesday 20th January

It’s early afternoon, and in the lea of the hedgerows, the ground is still frozen hard. We’re walking down the Banbury Road, towards the bridge, and it’s so cold that my scarf is over my nose, my eyes are watering.

The dogs pull me over the verge, down to the ditch beneath the oak. The water here is unfrozen, and I let the dogs go before I slosh through. It’s too cold to look up, but I don’t mind: I’m looking inwards, pulling and pushing at thoughts that won’t settle. I’ve been reading a book, a murder-mystery, thrillery type, and it’s a word-worm: it’s got into my head.

It’s called ‘What She Left’, and it’s about a girl called Alice Salmon, who drowns aged twenty-five, right when she’s on the very edge of everything that could be fabulous.

The story of Alice and how she ends up dead is compiled by a professor at the university  she once attended, as a project to discover how much of a person you can recapture by what they left behind.

I tramp across frozen rape, thinking about this. There’s a line in the book: Before, we died to leave birth certificate, death and marriage, perhaps photos. Not now.

I don’t like thinking of accidental legacy, of disorganised evidence I’ve left behind. Hasty ill-judged one-liners on Facebook. Photographs! Laboured witticisms on Twitter, irritated emails sent to rubbish eBay sellers. I look up, pointlessly whistle the dogs, push the thoughts away.

At the first footbridge, I stop to look at nightshade berries, wanting to describe them, but none of the words will fit. In the book, T.R. Richmond writes, ‘How terrible to be inarticulate…To never be heard. Perhaps that’s why we write?

I don’t want to think about that either. I force myself to eyeball the berries, caught in the winter sun. Ovoid. Lit from within, as if candled.

I straighten, taking shallow breaths. If I breathe too deeply, the cold scalds my chest, makes me cough. Ahead, Emma’s meadow is indistinct in the  sunlit mist. When I look back, I can see the reflections of ice in the divots of Dave’s fields, they sparkle like shattered glass. I didn’t see them on the way past, and even such an ordinary observation now seems weighted: all we can do in Alice’s story is look back.

I’ve fallen in love with Alice Salmon: she’s so brave, so cool. So real. The Professor, ‘Cookie’, compiles letters, Facebook postings, tweets, emails, police transcripts…Alice feels like my daughter, my sister, my best mate. I feel as if I knew her, and that I’m grieving for her, and to move on, I must understand what happened to her. 

At home, on my Kindle, ‘What She Left’ is on 84% read. The Kindle’s lying on the top of the giantly-stuffed laundry basket, in sight of the estimates I must type, the emails I must answer, the half-thawed chunks of turkey I must put in a pie. The flour, from which I must make the pie-top.

Now, if I’m squashed by a tractor, between here and home, the world will forever know of the turkey pie. The woman who eeked out Christmas Day until 20th January. Reading the book feels like looking in a mirror, or two, three mirrors; that disorientating fascination with a rarely-seen perspective, yet it’s one others see all that time. It’s all very well being heard, but it’s whether you’re understood that really seems to matter.

I reach Emma’s meadow, and I can’t do it any more, my brain hurts. I jump the stile and start to jog, sing, flap my arms. Anything to put me living in the here, the now. The dogs jump around me, enjoying a bit of bonkers. Pants barks with approval and Dora tells him off. I crouch and growl, making him bark even more. Then we run over the crispy grass, doubling-backwards, forwards, until I can’t breathe and I have to stop. I heave for breath, my hands on my knees. The dogs are still tearing round.

‘Come on,’ I tell them. ‘Enough. Home.’ I give in, grinning to myself, relieved to admit my weakness. ‘I’ve got tea to make. Ironing to do. A book to finish.’

 

What She Left cover

PS. Here’s a link… http://www.janklowandnesbit.co.uk/tr-richmond/what-she-left

 

On Walking: Thursday 8th Jan

I don’t want to walk today. It’s cold; windy and raining, and I want to stay at home, use my sour mood to skip out the gritty-bottomed saucepan cupboard. But Pants keeps laying his silly face along my back as I scrub, and every time I straighten, Dora runs to the leads, claws skittering on the floor. I clatter pans and slosh bleach to express my irritation, but they win, like they always do.

The rain drizzles away and we go down the Banbury Road to the Spring Field, because we haven’t been there yet this year, and because there’s a scrap of blue sky in that direction. There are a double set of gates into the first field, and usually I like the satisfaction of foiling their idiosyncrasies to open them. Not today: today I haul myself straight over the top of both, perch like a grumpy crow, before splotting down to the mud below. Once, twice. I land square each time, heavy-thighed, heavy bellied: too many Christmas chocolates.

I quick-march around the first field, head down, eyes fixed on the soggy remains of greyed wheat stubble. I can hear my breathing and feel the sweat in the small of my back, and I walk faster, faster. By the time I complete the second circle, the sky and I have changed mood. I stand in the middle of the gateway to Spring Field, feel the sun on my face and hear the birdsong in the blackthorn hedges at either side of me. I try to see which birds they might be, but they’re too quick, flitting up the hedge in front of me. I follow the margin up the hill, imagining the fat from those chocolates melting off.

Halfway up, I pause, and ahead, Pants wheels left to avoid the giant muck heap, sending a power of woodpigeons up into the sky. I’ve never seen so many together and I stop in astonishment. I can hear the flap from tens of wings – maybe hundreds – and they whirl up into the sky like leaves caught in a curling wind. They move in a solid vortex towards the covert that runs the full flank of the field, and I catch a glimpse of something terrible. As they fly, the birds cast huge shadows in the low, winter sun, and for the most fleeting of moments, a basic flight-fear jolts my muscles. I instantly rationalise the shadows – I know they’re only woodpigeons, and birds have never scared me – but such an ancient reflex fascinates me.

Dora and I walk on, beside the top hedge. An elder lies shattered across the margin, the lichen on its bark has been nibbled by roe deer. The blackthorn protects the tuiles of Lords and Ladies, poking up from the winter leaves like glossy green cigars.

Pants is out of sight, but I can track him by the frantic pheasants that occasionally hurl themselves from the undergrowth.  In the top corner of the field, I stop to look at Horley on its opposite hill. In the horse’s field next to the Cricket, the sun gilds the top of the ridges, making the shadows seem deeper. I can see our house, with its one super-clean cupboard. From this side of the valley, the other cupboards don’t seem to matter.

I shuffle my feet to warm them, and notice charcoal, piled on the mud in a neat heap. There’s about enough to fill a dinner plate, and I wonder how it got there, and by whom. The only human footprints up here are usually only mine. I stretch, walk on.

At the bottom of the field, by the Sor Brook,  clouds of midges jig in sunshine. I stand and watch them for a moment; at a breath of wind, the midges squeeze together, like fish with a shark.

I walk on, thinking about genetically-influenced fears and phobias, mysterious piles of charcoal and the men that once worked those ridge and furrow. I take off my hat, tip back my head, grateful to the sun, the fields. Conscious of my luck.

 

Horley from Spring Field

On Walking: Thursday 15th May

I’m stumping lop-sided down the Banbury Road, in one of those irritable, finickity moods where everything is annoying, and nothing is right. The dogs are pulling too hard, and I glare at a passing BMW that doesn’t move over enough.

It’s my first proper walk since I went up Cat Bells in the Lakes, and gave myself a stupid, stupid shin-splint. It’s far worse than the ones I normally get from skiing in cheap boots, and it’s put me in a filthy temper for nearly three weeks.

I can at least walk now though, and I’m heading to Dave’s fields beneath the dryer, because it’s the least amount of hillage. Everything has changed since I last came this way, and I feel hassled, as if I’d had a part to play, but missed my cue and now the production is sweeping on without me. All down the road, creamy hawthorn blossom froths onto  lacy white heads of cow parsley; garlic mustard, pink campions and gangling dead-nettle compete against lofty forests of nettles.

There’s a huge, soft clump of gentle comfrey to my right, and I glare at it as I grump past. Knit-bone. Get out of the hedge and make yourself into a poultice. I stump on, feeling fat and hot and at odds.

I reach the bridge and let the dogs off their leads. They leap the ditch – no water now, just dark, blackened mud – and fly off to the Sor Brook. I pause a moment, to look up into the oak. Its canopy is newly, perfectly green. Each leaf is cut clear and precise; Jianzhi art against the blue sky. There’s no wind down here, and I’m suddenly aware of a wood pigeon, calling its sleepy coo-chicoos. I blink and look at the wheat, then across the brook to the sheep with their half-grown lambs. Then I take off my jumper, slinging it on the hawthorn to collect on the way home.

The dogs crash through the grass of the margins, Dora making me smile at her meerkat impressions. We reach the secret passage – overgrown now, with cow parsley, nettles. Hidden by a vast bank of hawthorn.  We slide through the entrance and  in the bend by the brook-bank, I see a clump of sweet violets. They are flowering beautifully, deeply purple, as if they waited just for me.

By the time we reach the corner of the far field, my sourness has washed away. My knees are soaked from the long grass, and I’m fascinated by the lightening-quick spiders that dart ahead of my boots. I look up, and see a bra hanging from the willow at the edge of Horley’s stream, where it meets the brook. The bra’s been knocking around this corner of the field since early Spring, but someone – a well-meaning granny, or delighted school-boy – has hung it up as lost property or a trophy.

When El and I first saw it, weeks ago, Ellie had been scornful. ‘Why would you take your bra off in a field?’ Hoping to distract her, I said it could’ve been stolen. ‘But why?’

‘Head wear?’

Ellie gave me a dark look. ‘Weirdos.’

I’m smiling now, remembering, and the dogs and I walk up the field, next to the loud busyness of the stream. There’s cattle in Emma’s meadow, so we carry on walking the margin round, parallel with the village. Ellie’s poor fallen oak is ahead of me, and I think for a moment how lush it would be to sit on it in the sun, and look out over the valley. But I’ve emails, editing, estimates to type, floors to be mopped, baskets to plant. I’m still listing my To-Do’s as I sneak along the hedge, kick flat a few nettles, make a mighty leap for the top of the trunk. For a moment I scrabble, so horribly unfit – but then I’m up, straight-backed and grinning; the meadows spread beneath me like Gaia’s prize.

In our family vernacular, it’s an Innisfree moment. It means a perfect moment in place and time that makes sense of the world, and allows you greater freedom and understanding than you’d have ordinarily. It’s from Yeats, and one of the lines is ‘Peace comes dropping slow’. I feel that now – my fists unclenching, my joints loosening, limbs lengthening. I shake out my digging-in hair slide, lift my face to the warmth of the  sun.

I can smell the rankness of elder, hear the plaintive wail of a lamb. The dogs are sat, patiently waiting at my feet, and the three of us watch the perusals of a butterfly – white, with orange tips.

I drink my fill of that peace; let my shoulders grow hot, my mind grow still. The oak beneath me is slightly spongy with rot. I place my fingers flat against it, imagining it how many rings run beneath me, how many summers it stood through, before it fell.

After a while, I slide down, and the dogs get up, looking at me expectantly. ‘Home,’ I tell them. At the smaller of the Billy Goat bridges, I bury my nose in hawthorn flowers. I’ve recently read that they smell like dead bodies, but I can’t tell. To me they smell of the freedoms of my childhood; the lawlessness of North Warwickshire. They remind me of midnight walks, endless quests with no grownups, no paths, no rules.

I wind my way back through the fields to the Banbury Road, collect my jumper. The road is busier now, the school-run mummies belting past.

I raise an arm, wondering what they must think of me: potty dog-walker woman, limping with blossom in my hair, my phone stuffed down my cleavage like a call-to-arms.

They drive past too close, but I just smile and wave, blissed out.

 

From Ellie's Oak 2

 

 

On Walking – Saturday 11th May

Horribly, horribly busy, but sent dog walking by Stevie because apparently I’m grumpy. I’ve been welded to my lap top for three straight hours, trying to crack a piece, and all I’ve produced is a painfully convoluted paragraph on the town of Abingdon.

‘Just bugger off,’ says Stevie, unplugging me. ‘Sun’s out. Move it.’

I de-crunch my limbs, and we go, me with Dora, Ellie with the puppy. Ellie chatters away, but I don’t listen, still deep in booksellers. I grunt, at intervals, irritated with the world.

At the end of the Jackie Chan, I trip over Arfa Pants, and do a comedy fall to avoid squashing him flat. There’s a clump of Ladies’ smock, pinkish-white petals inches from my nose. Elle looks at me sideways, unsure whether she’s allowed to laugh. She looks away, hand over her mouth, and spots a squirrel.

‘Mummy!’

We watch it shin one of St Ethelreda’s horse chestnut trees, and disappear into the new leaves.

‘Don’t they look like hankies?’ I say.

‘What,’ says Elle. ‘Already covered in snot?’

We walk on, arguing whether to go over Bramshill, or up and around the Allotment field. I win. We walk to the Allotment field.

My grump lasts until half way across the field, when Arfa Pants makes me laugh by going head-over-heels down the steep slope. Ellie’s laughing so hard her legs give way, and we lean together, hooting as Arfa shoots off again.

A huge rain cloud is coming over the hill from Hornton, and Ellie spots it and shouts to run for the bridleway before it gets us. We pelt down the field, and collapse breathless on the tiny bench tucked beneath a tree I don’t know the name of. The rain falls in great splats, and we put our hoods up. Great wafts of scent reaches us, and I realise it’s oil seed rape – the first time this year I’ve smelt it. Beneath its sheet-metal butteriness is a lighter, sweeter scent: bluebells. The rain stops as abruptly as it started, and Elle and I stand up and look behind us. Bluebells cover the whole of the bridleway bank, for as far back up the hill as we can see.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look at that.’Ellie and Arfa Pants in the bluebells, May 2013

‘Good for fairies,’ says Elle. I ask her why, and she gives me one of her rolling-eyes ‘duh’ looks. ‘For their hats, Mummy…?’

Love her.

We walk back towards the Horley-Hornton Road, and see the damage wreaked by recent storms. Halfway up the track is completely blocked by a gnarled elder. It’s torn in half, and took out a huge blackthorn bush on the way. Blackthorn blossom lies thick on the ground, like confetti from a woodland wedding.

Further up, a young sycamore has been wrenched in two, its bright young leaves dying across the path. Even as I’m feeling sorry for it, I’m weighing up the burning potential.

We reach the top of the bridleway and come out onto the road into blazing sunshine. The Hornton cloud can be seen rampaging towards Banbury. Elle and Arfa Pants walk on the wide verge that the gypsies camped on last winter. The grass their ponies cropped is higher now than Elle’s wellies. I smile blindly at a passing car, and can feel Elle looking at me, re-evaluating my mood.

‘Mummy,’ she says. ‘You know tonight?’

We’ve friends over for dinner.

‘Can Jess and I be waitresses?’

I ask her why, although I already know the answer.

‘Well,’ she says. ‘We could watch a bit of telly. And then you don’t need to pay us.’

‘Pay you!’ I shriek.

‘We’ll even pour wine,’ she says, skipping past the Horley sign. ‘If you let us stay up until nine o’clock. And Mummy-‘

‘What?’

‘If me and Jess lay the table, you can finish your bookshop essay.’

‘Not an essay,’ I say, frowning. Elle knows I mean ‘thank you’, and she takes my hand.

On Walking, Monday 22nd April – Frogs

Have been working horribly hard all day, and only just have time for a quick yomp through the village before the school bus.

Am beginning to resent that bus. Even when I see it around Banbury, even when I actually have children in car with me, my heart quickens and my legs twitch to run and be waiting in The Place, my good-mummy-face plastered like pastry over my pie of my day.

I walk very fast through the village, straight down the centre of Wroxton Lane. If I go near the verges, Dora thinks that gives her license to crap. She particularly likes gravel drives, or the houses containing any Handsome Husbands or Beautiful Wives. Somehow, it’s less embarrassing to bag up poo outside the Beige people’s houses.

Buttery yellow forsythia has exploded everywhere, clashing with the delicate washed lemon of the primroses below. Once I notice the colour it’s everywhere – egg-yolk daffs, dandelions like defiant sun-bursts. Even the lichen on the style has gone a yellowish grey, like old lace.

The Cross’ have a stunning pink-and-white blossoming fruit tree outside their house, and I stare at it with an open mouth as I pass. Dora takes advantage of my inattention to sidle towards the verge. Luckily I realise and hurriedly drag her on. Bloody dog.

There’s a grim sight at the bottom of the village. Scores of dried, leathery frog-bodies, dead and starting to crisp. Quite a few are sadly entwined; coitus-flaticus. Dor tries to lever up bodies with her teeth, but the hold of the tarmac is too strong.

We bowl onwards, through the carnage. We reach the brook and I peer over, as always. There’s a dark mass just beneath the shadow of the bridge, and I tip closer. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen correctly. Handfuls and handfuls of frog spawn. The thought is uplifting and I smile stupidly at the water. Some of the poor little buggers made it.

Walking, Wednesday 10th April

Neither Ellie nor I had left the house all day, and by four o’clock we fizzed with irritable energy, like wasps in coke cans.

We collected Dora and set out for Archie’s Covert, walking down the Banbury Road with its too-fast cars.

Ellie swung her dog coat by the arms and I snapped to stop it, or I’ll kill her.

‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ Ellie replied, continuing to swing.

‘Why!’ I shout. ‘Why are you still doing it?’

‘It’s boring. It’s a boring coat. I’m making it interesting.’

I laughed, leaving my bad temper on the cricket gate, next to a clump of brand-new daffs.

When we reached Jamie’s Mum’s Stables, we climbed the Hamers’ double gates to drop into their wheat field. The earth between the gates has turned to bright orange silt that sticks to our wellies.

‘What colour is the wheat?’ I said.

‘Green.’

‘Yes, but what sort of green?’

‘Green, green. With blue and shrivelly yellow bits.’

We inspected the wheat, the blades three inches long, if that. Usually by now (April), they’d be clumpy tussocky things, not sad and splayed like this in the sodden ground.

Ellie finds some cloven hoof tracks, and thinks they’re baby deer. I suspect muntjac. When we reach Archie’s covert, Dora vanishes down to the stream. I turn to look at our house across the valley, glinting with its new windows. Last summer’s mares’ tail lies in skeletal abandon around our feet. There are half-nibbled cones everywhere, snacked on by deer.

Ellie finds a giant poo, and we speculate that its from a monster stag. A massive red kite breaks free above our heads, and I’m frightened for a moment, imagining it might swoop down and carry off Dora.

‘Get a grip,’ said Ellie. ‘There’s millions of lambs over there. Wouldn’t you eat one of those before a stringy dog with claws?’

I looked at my daughter in surprise, and she burst out laughing.

‘Mummy,’ she says, as we turn for home. ‘Just look at your flowers. I’ll worry about everything else.’